A few months back, Joe Cutrufo and his family packed up and moved from New York to Houston. Since arriving in town, Cutrufo says he’s been doing a lot of eating (taking advantage of the city’s talented roster of Vietnamese restaurants; riding his bike (he’s spending more time on his bike now than he did when he was in New York); and working. He’ll have to maintain his pace, both on the bike and in the office, to accomplish all that he wants to do as the new executive director of BikeHouston.
Cutrufo, a longtime advocate for safe, sustainable and equitable transportation, is originally from Boston. Before taking the BikeHouston job, he was the communications director at Transportation Alternatives, a nonprofit based in New York City. While he was there, the organization successfully advocated for the legalization of e-bikes on the city’s streets and the expansion of its school zone speed camera program, as well as a number of street redesigns, including the “Miracle on 14th Street,” which restricted traffic on the Manhattan street to buses and some deliveries, and the construction of more than 60 miles of protected bike lanes.
When BikeHouston announced the hire, Cutrufo said:
“Houston has a reputation for traffic and sprawl, but between the bayou trails, new protected bike lanes, and hundreds of miles of streets just itching to be redesigned, I see a place brimming with potential to become one of the nation’s most bike-friendly cities.”
Recently, I spoke with Cutrufo about why he chose to take the top job at a nonprofit focused on bicycle advocacy in Houston, a city that has experienced dramatic growth — both figuratively and literally — in the past 40 years, yet it’s often still thought of as the city it was in 1980s. It’s a place that has evolved culturally, politically and economically, but suffers from too many assumptions based on too little understanding. Anyone who’s been in Houston for more than a minute knows the world outside of Beltway 8 is slow to take notice of good things when they happen here.
Cutrufo talked about the opportunities and challenges of building and improving bike infrastructure in Houston, including the progress made so far and the work to be done. He told me what he thinks is the best example of a protected bike lane in the city’s growing network and the need to act now to accommodate the growing demand for space restricted to people who walk, run, roll or bike that’s being seen on the more popular greenways.
Where have you been riding since you got here?
So, I take my kids to school on a bike. We have a Yuba (cargo bike). So, that’s my most frequent ride. I ride to the BikeHouston office a little bit, which is in Montrose. I live in the museum district. But then I’ve been riding all the protected bike lanes and to White Oak Bayou. I’ve been up to the Heights a few times. I’ve ridden up and down the Columbia Tap Trail a few times to Brays Bayou. Pretty much everything but Sims Bayou.
Cutrufo first came to Houston when he was invited to take part in the 2019 bike summit, where he was part of a panel discussion on what it takes to create a bike-friendly city — and how to get Houston there. He was invited by Jessica Wiggins, former advocacy director at BikeHouston, who wanted to bring in an outsider to ‘shake people out of their complacency’ about making Houston a great bike city.
I talked about New York’s experience and a lot of the stuff that hadn’t really entered the mainstream in Houston yet. Things like: we’re not going to create safe streets in Houston, we’re not going to make a city where people feel comfortable riding a bike, we’re not going to expand the biking population by increasing enforcement [or] by just educating cyclists. You have to do the engineering. You have to design the streets in a way that makes biking safe.
The Netherlands and Denmark didn’t become bicycling capitals of the world by having the highest helmet use or the most cops on the street. They did it by creating dedicated bikeways and putting those everywhere. So, a comprehensive bike network is essentially what I came to talk about [in 2019], and that’s what I’m here to do now.
What did you think of the biking culture in the city at that time?
At that point, Houston had some really great Bayou Greenways and some bike infrastructure on the streets, but not a whole lot. And that’s not the case now, because — I think — BikeHouston did a lot of really good work, especially through the Build 50 Challenge, and thanks to Commissioner Rodney Ellis, they were able to expand the amount of on-street bike infrastructure dramatically in the course of 18 months to a year.
And now Houston is very big on the map in terms of cities with good bike networks and growing bike networks. And from where I stand, I don’t see a whole lot of resistance. I see some systemic problems when it comes to expanding bike network, but I see a lot of goodwill.
Why Houston? It’s not a city that’s usually recognized for cycling, despite a lot of efforts currently underway.
I didn’t come here as somebody who thought, "you know, we can take exactly what worked in New York and apply it to Houston." But I do think there are a lot of lessons cities like New York, who are early adopters, can teach cities like Houston. But we need to understand the limitations of that because they are very different cities with different political structures and different power structures.
There had been a lot of missteps in New York that we’ve learned from over the years — about what works and what doesn’t. Houston doesn’t need to recreate those same mistakes. We can learn from other early adopters. And when I say early adopters, I mean early adopters of building out protected bike networks and adopting policies like Vision Zero, for example.
What do you see as Houston’s biggest challenges in terms of transportation equity?
Houston is considered a city of opportunity, right? But that opportunity doesn’t really extend to people who don’t drive or who don’t own a car. We need to make sure that it’s a city of opportunity for all Houstonians. Right now, that’s really not the case.
There have been some serious investments in transit, and I don’t want to discount that. It’s a different transit environment [today] than a decade or more ago, but getting around the city without a car? And having access to jobs and affordable health care and child care and schools? For a lot of people, it’s just not possible if you can’t drive or if you don’t own a car. That’s where I think bicycling can step in as a mode that can give people greater access to opportunity.
What challenges does the city face in terms of equity in bike infrastructure?
It’s not that we need to get more bikes in the hands of Houstonians. We need to create a transportation network for people on bikes. Transportation networks are made up of vehicles, networks and terminals. For bikes, your terminals are where you keep your bike, the vehicle is the bike itself, of course, and the network is the streets. But those streets are often not bike friendly. So, you don’t have much of a network. Nobody should really be riding a bike on many of the transportation corridors [in Houston] — the streets people use to get around in their cars. They’re designed for one mode and one mode only.
To the degree that we can create a connected network of protected bike lanes and off-street paths throughout Houston, we’re not just increasing access to recreational space, which is where a lot of the dialogue is now, but we’re also creating access to opportunity, which has mostly been overlooked. And not only in Houston. In most cities, and even in cities like New York, where only more recently have elected leaders been thinking about bikes as a way to expand access for people’s needs, as opposed to getting places by bike for recreation.
Is it possible to change the driving culture in Houston or the mindset of drivers who may not be familiar with the idea of streets as shared space for more than one mode of transportation? Can better messaging or education campaigns make the city more bike-friendly?
I think the more energy we put into trying to educate drivers, and the more energy we put into enforcing the rules of the road, especially in a way that targets cyclists, the less energy we’re spending on actually creating a bike-friendly city. We don’t get awarded gold-level status in terms of being a Bicycle Friendly Community by the League of American Bicyclists by expecting drivers to keep us safe. If people on bikes are reliant on drivers to provide safe passage for them, we lose that game every time.
We’re not going to get there with education alone. Education plays an important role, and I don’t want to downplay that, but I think who needs to be educated most are the decision-makers. What’s the saying? ‘Show me your budget, and I’ll tell you what you value.’
Cutrufo also talked about the Houston-specific challenges to making it a better cycling city, and how a shared vision and a collaborative approach are necessary, especially in a city with Houston’s particular power structure:
The City of Houston doesn’t have the budget to make Vision Zero happen on its own. It has to be a team effort because this is a balkanized city. The Harris County Commissioners have much bigger budgets than the City of Houston does, and they’ve got their own interests outside of the city. You’ve got a lot of capitol in the TIRZs and in the management districts, and they can build stuff independently of other factions in the city. When it comes to creating a shared vision for Houston, in terms of safe streets, and creating dedicated, protected bike networks, there needs to be a shared vision. And that’s where advocates have to step in. That’s where BikeHouston and the Houston Bike Plan, to a degree, need to see eye to eye. It has to be an all-hands-on-deck effort to really build out the network.
How far away is that?
Building out a network is a three-pronged approach to prioritizing the gaps. You have the places that have the urgent safety needs; you have the places where people are already riding in less-than-ideal conditions. And, then you have the places where there’s opportunity, but there’s not a way to get there. For example, job centers, schools and densely populated residential areas.
And, to the same degree, recreational opportunities as well. A lot of the people who have been working on quality-of-life issues in Houston for some time — the Houston Parks Board, for example — the point of all that work that we’re now benefiting from since the Bayou Greenways have been built, was that Houstonians didn’t have great access to green space. But, now we have these great bayou trails. And now we have bikeways that are, to a degree, doing a pretty good job connecting people to places. But it’s limited. It’s also much better than it was just a couple of years ago. I don’t want to downplay the work that’s been done in just the last couple of years. The network is starting to fill out and we’re seeing it grow right before our eyes.
Can you assess the work done so far in building out that network? What’s working? What’s not working as well?
I think Houston learned what materials work best [for building protected bike lanes]. Those armadillo protected lanes aren’t quite as good as the ones that have the precast concrete curbs, like you see on Austin Street.
If a driver hits an armadillo, does it stay put or does it come flying out? In a lot of cases, they don’t stay put. But the precast concrete curbs, you only hit those once and you’re not going to hit one of those again. That’s serious infrastructure. That’s state of the art as far as I’m concerned.
I think Austin Street might be the best example of a protected bike lane that [there is in Houston]. To me, the corner of Austin and (West) Gray, where you have two protected bike lanes meeting, is the best intersection in the city. That’s just really good design work right there. And we need to see more and more and more of that.
And it’s not just about quantity when it comes to bike-lane miles, it’s about quality, Cutrufo says. And he emphasizes the importance role location plays in the quality of bike lanes:
We don’t want to be building bike lanes just so we can say, Houston built 30 miles of protected bike lanes in 2021. Well, is anyone using them? Are they in places where there was a true need? Now, it’d be great to have protected bike lanes on every single major street, but, you know, let’s prioritize. And I think that's where the Bike Plan really comes in. They’re looking at this with the metrics. They have the data to determine where the crashes are happening, where people are riding the most and what we are actually connecting — filling in the gaps, but with purpose.
Describe how bicycle advocacy is used effectively in pulling the levers that help achieve the goal of making Houston a bike-friendly and bikeable city?
Bicycle advocacy has been happening for 40 or so years, but it has really become a more sophisticated industry in the last decade or two. And one thing that I think people who ride bikes and people who want to make cities safer and more attractive for riding bikes have realized is that how we talk about our mission and how we talk about the need [for making biking safer] matters a lot.
Bicycle advocacy is often considered a zero-sum game: you’re taking from the motorist and you’re giving to the bicyclist. And that can be that can be a powerful rallying cry, but it can also be something (that upsets people). But, I think, in Houston and in a lot of cities, people use more than one mode of transportation. I also drive a car. I use that space, too. But I mostly ride a bike, so that space is important to me.
Not every decision-maker in Houston really believes in creating more space on the streets for people on bikes. But you can convince just about anybody that we need to improve access to parks, for example. And these can take the same form in the implementation stage. The reasons why the bike network gets built out may vary from neighborhood to neighborhood and from elected official to elected official. In some parts of town, you may see council members or the heads of super neighborhoods who are really behind the idea of more amenities for physical activity. And that might be a bike lane or an off-street path. But you also might find a council member or the head of a TIRZ (tax increment reinvestment zone) who is adamant that we need to improve safety on the streets, and that one way to do that is by building a protected bike lane. So, it depends on who you talk to and how you get there and what language you use.
As an expert who’s also new to Houston, Cutrufo brings a fresh eye to the cycling landscape, which allows him to see overlooked neighborhood-scale assets already in place that can be used to expand the bike network:
[Houston’s] neighborhood streets are generally really attractive for riding a bike. They’re not quite the all-ages-and-abilities that you might find on the bayous and they’re not completely free of traffic, but they’re these low-traffic streets, where traffic travels — generally — pretty slowly. And you have the benefit of being a very flat city.
I’m able to take my kids to school on a cargo bike, and we might pass one car, which is a real luxury. That would have been impossible in most New York City neighborhoods, where you would have to contend with at least a couple dozen impatient drivers over the course of a mile or so, double-parked cars … lots of friction. One benefit to Houston neighborhood streets is there isn’t a whole lot of friction. That is an asset in terms of thinking about the bike network we want to build out. We want to build out a network of all ages and abilities, or high comfort, protected bike lanes that are just as safe as the [Bayou Greenways]. But we can’t do that everywhere, of course, and there are places that people need to go that aren’t going to be directly on those rights of ways.
If the network of greenways and protected bike lanes is your BRT line (bus rapid transit line) and your light-rail line, what’s your first and last mile? That’s your low-stress network — those are your neighborhood “greenways.” And I think for a lot less money, Houston can be expanding its low-stress network. Some cities call them bicycle boulevards, where there’s some signage or some pavement markings, it might be some way-finding sometimes; it’s some branding. You give a route a name or you give a loop a name, and you create [something] that attracts people.
When you have more people using a specific route, even if it doesn’t have that infrastructure that or that concrete that says, “this is a dedicated bikeway,” you already have the low traffic, you already have the low speeds, you have decent pavement. When you mix in the way-finding and the signage and the pavement markings, you're on your way to a pretty good bicycle facility for a lot less money than what it takes to create something like the Austin Street or Polk Street [bikeways].